If you think your dog understands your moods as well as your
commands, you’re probably right. No other species has dogs’ capacity to read
and respond to our communicative gestures or dogs’ child-like ability to learn
word meanings, a canine researcher says.
Brian Hare is an associate
professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive
Neuroscience at Duke University. He is also founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center. Hare
and his wife, Vanessa Woods, co-authored a new book, "The Genius of Dogs."
In a Scientific American story by Gareth Cook, Hare explains that dogs’ ability to
interpret our gestures to please us and get what they want makes them terrific social
partners, whether the activity is hunting or just navigating everyday life.
Further, he says, their ability to interpret "helps them solve problems they
can’t solve on their own.”
Some veterinarians rate dog intelligence
by how easy a breed is to train. Hare dismisses the idea that there are smart
and dumb dogs. He says while people think dog intellect differs by breed, and
different dogs and good at different things, the genetic differences are
miniscule. Are dogs empathetic?
Hard to say, because they can’t describe their feelings, Hare says. But
he says research has found they get a boost of oxytocin, the love hormone, when humans hug and pet them. What about guilt? Hare says research by Alexandra Horowitz suggests
dogs may react to an owner’s distress or disapproval rather than the idea they
have sinned. And how did our
loveable companions evolve from dangerous predatory wolves? Hare thinks friendliness just may have
an evolutionary edge.
While research by Hare and others has found dogs generally are
very good at learning meaning of words, they aren’t much good at spacial
intelligence. In a Wired Magazine story by Greg Miller, Hare says dogs tend to get befuddled if
their leash wraps around a tree, and they have trouble recognizing the physical
limits of a leash.
Hare has launched a new company called Dognition. For a fee, you can find
games and tasks that will produce a profile of your dog’s strengths and
weaknesses. Hare told Wired that
at the same time, you’ll be contributing to science because the social skills of
dogs, which have in some ways exceeded those of our closest primate relatives,
may have much to teach us about how our own social skills evolved. He also
thinks research can help train dogs to better help people, such as the blind
and disabled. He hopes information
from a vast numbers of dogs world wide will further canine science. He conceded to Wired that it’s not
conventional for participants in citizens’ science, which relies on collective
action and crowdsourcing, to pay.
He says people are paying for expertise and technology that provides dog
owners a new way to find out about their own pets in their own homes.
In Wall Street Journal piece Hare and Woods write that
while cats have twice as many neurons as dogs do in their cerebral cortex, they
have nowhere near the social skills. If you’re convinced the special qualities
of cats are under-rated, read Pam Belluck’s New
York Times story about cats who have found their way
home despite distance and hardship. The navigational skills involved have baffled